“While He Was Gone”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
March 6, 2016
Before we say anything at all about this parable, it’s important to note that Jesus told this story in response to grumbling. The Pharisees and scribes, who were religious insiders, religious leaders, the religious elite, were grumbling about the fact that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners.
They were complaining about the company Jesus was keeping. Religious leaders (and at this point in the story, the scribes and Pharisees did consider Jesus to be a legitimate spiritual leader), were not supposed to hang out with prostitutes and traitors.
The Roman occupation and the economic realities of the day had forced people to make a living in ways that were offensive to many. Yes, prostitution and working for the enemy oppressor are not wonderful things to do, but Jesus wasn’t about judging; he was about saving and reconciling and restoring people to life.
We all know grumblers. We all know complainers. Maybe we are the chief grumblers and complainers in our families or offices or classrooms. Grumbling has its place. Grumbling can help communities to get better because grumblers often point out areas in need of improvement.
But Jesus isn’t really cool with the particular kind of grumbling we hear in this passage. The scribes and Pharisees are grumbling in a judgmental way about the people with whom Jesus is associating: Women who have no husband or male family members and who have turned to prostitution to survive. Tax collectors who are working with the enemy and profiting by their position. It’s hard to find a way to sympathize with the tax collectors in Jesus’ time and place and maybe that’s the point. Jesus is asking us to see truly bad people as human beings, as our brothers and sisters.
And that’s where the prodigal son comes in. He has no redeeming qualities. He asks for his inheritance before his father dies, which is pretty presumptuous. He spends all of his money on prostitutes and partying. He comes home, not because he realizes that he is a sinner or because of some religious conversion. He comes home because he is hungry. He comes home because he has been reduced to feeding pigs, which, for a Jewish man, is not so great. He comes home because he is desperate.
This story is popularly known as the parable of the prodigal son. It could easily be known as the parable of the loving father or the parable of the resentful brother or the parable of the unmentioned mother. Each of the characters is important.
We see the dad welcoming his son back home with open arms and celebrating his return with a robe and a ring and a barbeque. We see the older brother, arms crossed in anger, standing in the field with a sneer on his face, refusing to join in the celebration, not understanding his father’s graciousness toward his ridiculous brother.
We don’t hear a thing about the mom, who, perhaps because of the status of women in her day, is not mentioned. But I’m wondering what was she’s feeling when her son comes home.
And I’m also wondering about the time when the prodigal son was off behaving badly? What were each of them feeling while he was gone?
If I were the dad, I would be feeling a lot of anger. In those days, men controlled the family finances. Imagine giving your son his inheritance before you even die. If he invested it wisely or started a business, OK, but what if he just blew it all on drugs and bars and sex? I’d be more than angry. And, as a dad, I’d be concerned about my son’s safety.
If I were the mom, I’d stare at the empty chair at the dinner table each night, wondering if he’s OK and if he’ll ever come home.
If I were the older brother, I’d feel resentful about having to do double the work on the farm.
Although this isn’t mentioned in the parable, as a brother, I’d probably feel a little worried, too, while he’s gone. After all, he is my younger brother and he’s always been kind of a nincompoop.
The prodigal himself? Who knows? The word prodigal means wasteful or recklessly extravagant. If I were the prodigal son, I’d probably be too busy spending my money and having a great time to feel much of anything but happy.
Until the money runs out. Until I am feeding pigs with pea pods and wishing I could eat some, too. Imagine feeding pigs, animals you’ve always been taught were unclean, with scraps that usually go in the garbage and being so hungry, you want to eat them. Imagine trying to build up the courage to face the family you’ve hurt.
No matter which character you identify with the most – the loving father, the unmentioned mother, the resentful brother, the slave who is caught in the middle and is just telling it like it is, or the prodigal himself – that time when he is gone is a terrible time… When he is gone, it is way worse than when he was selfishly asking for his inheritance or when the music is blasting and everyone is eating steak and drinking wine and wasting money on the one who broke their hearts.
When he is gone, there is no information. When he is gone, no one knows where he is. When he is gone, no one, including the prodigal himself, knows whether or not he is going to survive.
And this in between place is where God is, I believe, most present, though we often don’t recognize it.
Isn’t it true that when we are in a bad place, when we are in between, we are often wonder, Where is God? Why isn’t God fixing this problem?
But then, after a time, when we are worried, whether about ourselves or someone we love, we often open ourselves to the God who is love.
Maybe we should be more open to God when things are good. Maybe we should be more grateful when everything is going our way, when we are healthy, when our kids are going to class and getting good grades and marrying wonderful people and getting a great job. Maybe, yes, but do we?
We turn to God in the in-between. When everything stinks. When we are worried about our kids or our husband or wife or sister or brother. And we ask for help. We pray for change. We look to God for guidance.
What should we do when we are reduced to feeding pigs? And how should we treat the one who has made mistake after mistake and treated us badly but whom we love with all of our hearts?
How should we treat our prodigal son, daughter, brother, sister?
Jesus has a pretty clear answer and it’s all about how God treats us when we act terribly. And all of us act badly from time to time. And God forgives and welcomes and celebrates us when we come home.
No matter which character we identify with the most, it is the father who gets it right: When in doubt, love.